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Toward a Theory of Street-Level Bureaucracy (From Criminal Justice System: Politics and Policies, Seventh Edition, P 24-40, 1998, George F. Cole and Marc G. Gertz, eds. -- See NCJ-185991)

NCJ Number
Michael Lipsky
Date Published
17 pages
The author indicates most people employed by criminal justice organizations can be described as street-level bureaucrats, as public employees who interact with non-voluntary clients and have a considerable amount of discretion about how to deal with these clients, and he argues street-level bureaucrats must do their jobs despite inadequate resources and in an environment where their authority is regularly challenged and where expectations about how they should be doing their job are contradictory and/or ambiguous.
In attempting to develop a theory of the political behavior of street-level bureaucrats and their interactions with clients, the essay discusses street-level bureaucracy when the following conditions are relatively salient in the job environment: (1) available resources are inadequate; (2) work proceeds in circumstances where there are clear physical and/or psychological threats to the bureaucrat's authority; and (3) expectations about job performance are contradictory and/or ambiguous and include unattainable idealized dimensions. The author contends individuals who play organizational roles will develop bureaucratic mechanisms to make their tasks easier in order to make decisions about complex problems. These individuals will, of necessity, make accommodations to deal with inadequate resources, threats, and role expectations. They may also attempt to alter expectations about job performance by changing assumptions about the clients served. The role of stereotypes in the world of bureaucrats is examined, and street-level bureaucracy is considered in relation to urban conflict.